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Your lung capacity is set by the time you’re 17. I’ve been in water all my life—swimming, snorkelling, scuba diving, synchronized swimming—and my lungs are 66 percent larger than those of a typical woman my height (5‘7“) and age (36). I met my husband, Kirk, doing scuba, and started free diving in 2000 after he noticed that I could equalize at 101 metres deep. Turns out, I can equalize my ears without using my hands, which is rare.
The longest I’ve held my breath is six minutes 25 seconds, which seems long until you compare it to the world record, set by a French diver: 11:25. You train by floating face down in a pool, focusing on slowing your breathing and your heart rate. You teach yourself to relax completely. Even thinking uses energy and oxygen.
I wear a two-piece, 3 mm wetsuit, fluid goggles, nose clip, and monofin. I have three or four pounds of weight around my neck. I become negatively buoyant at 20 metres—I start sinking at 40 metres. In Vancouver waters, it’s pitch black beyond 60 metres. The mammalian diving reflex has kicked in at that point, causing all the body’s systems to slow right down, minimizing the need for oxygen. My heart rate slows to fewer than 30 beats per minute and my lungs have compressed, at 88 metres, to about one-ninth their normal size. You grab a tag and head back up at the same rate, about a metre per second.
All you hear is your own voice, talking you through the dive: “Tuck your chin. Streamline your arms. Relax your stomach.” Everything else is blocked out. All you see is the white diving line in front of your face; you’re almost hypnotized, you’re so focused. Responding to the environment diminishes your capacity, so you don’t. If you let your mind kick in, evil monkeys start to natter—“Man, you’re deep, I don’t know if you can make it, you better turn around.” I’ve blacked out many times, always close to the surface. You’re suddenly in this crazy, fast-paced dream. Each time, I’ve woken at the surface in Kirk’s arms, and he’s saying, “Breathe, Mandy, breathe.” It takes a second or two, and then you do. You haven’t swallowed water because your throat automatically closes—it’s called the laryngo-spasm reflex.
People think free diving is dangerous, but far more people die spearfishing, or recreational diving, or because they didn’t train properly or dive with a buddy. And there are no harmful long-term effects. Last year Kirk and I had extensive research done on our brains—MRAs, MRIs, CAT scans—and they found nothing abnormal. You’re never without oxygen. Your body is just working with lower levels of it.We had a baby this year. I was out of the water for five months, but I was able to do a 130-foot dive my first day back. Now I’m training for the Deja Blue competition in the Cayman Islands in May. I don’t know why, but I can’t stay out of the water. I just have to compete. VM
Phil Nuytten: How Phil Nuytten taught himself to navigate the ocean—and changed our understanding of some of the most inhospitable places on Earth